King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 16, 17, 18

“Light cavalry be buggered,” commented Hagbarth. “What frightened me was those red galleys. Just turned up, no warning. Like the Ragnarssons used to do. There we were, flying the kites off, half a dozen ships out there, and they came out of the haze as if they’d planned it. Not even hurrying, just paddling along at twelve strokes a minute. Nearly cut us all off from the harbor just the same. If Tolman hadn’t seen them first we could all have been fried.”

“If we hadn’t had to wind Tolman in and recover him we could have got out to the open sea and let them go by,” grunted Brand, continuing a long argument.

“Either way. They came up to the harbor just after we got inside, had a look in, burned off a fishing boat that hadn’t seen them—just deviltry that was, to show us they could do it, and kept on paddling north. But they aren’t far away. Could be here before nightfall.”

“We think it would be wiser,” Thorvin concluded, speaking for all of them, “if the king returned here and made preparations for departure.”

Solomon spread his arms wide. “I have given you his instructions. He is—or so you say—your king. I do not debate with my prince once he has said his word. Perhaps you Northerners are different.”

A long silence. Brand broke it. “Will your prince let us leave the city?”

“He will let you leave the city. You are not under his protection. He will let me guide you. I am out of favor now. I spoke my mind concerning the release of the young Arab, and he is prepared to lose me. None of his other people may go.”

“All right,” said Brand. “We’ll have to do it. Thorvin, hand over some silver to Solomon so he can buy the mules, Steffi, start getting the stuff together and work out how many mules you’ll need. Pick the kite crews.”

“Will you come with us, lord?” asked Steffi.

“No. I’m not very good at fast moving, and something tells me you’re going to come down that mountain a great deal faster than you went up. If you’re lucky. I’m going to stay here and think about how to guard this harbor. Against anything, flame included.”

Miles further up the mountain, Shef was repeating an experiment, in his usual painstaking and skeptical way. He was familiar enough with the white residue that the head of the perfecti had shown him. So was anyone who had ever mucked out a cowshed or a pig-sty. A white earth, that condensed from the animals’ urine, or so they said.

What Shef had not seen before was the crystalline form derived from it. “How had they come upon that?” he had asked. The answer made a kind of sense. In English conditions, where earth was wet most of the time and earth from an animal-shed even more so, lighting a fire on the white earth was unlikely ever to happen. Here, in the cold, dry air of the mountain winter, where beasts were often stalled indoors, it was a natural event. Once the mountaineers had realized that the white earth made a blaze, someone, somewhere had put that knowledge together with the knowledge of the Arabs, familiar already with al-kimi, al-kuhl, al-qili, and other strange concepts. Now they knew that water trickled over the white earth from the animal sheds, the wood-ash from the fires, and the lime crushed from limestone, could be boiled to give these crystals.

Sal Petri, they called it, the salt of Saint Peter. Or did they mean rock-salt? Shef neither knew nor cared. He had realized soon enough that the Peter-salt could not be the secret of the Greek fire. But it was interesting just the same, as were the other ingredients that the Children of God had shown him. New knowledge once again.

He had built a pile of kindling, a sequence of piles, and poured the crystals over each one. Then to each he had made a separate addition from the materials the graybeard perfectus Anselm had given him. In normal life, each one would have to be lit painstakingly from kindling and blown into life with the care that children learnt from their parents. Some people could light fires, some people couldn’t, so ran the folk wisdom: the former group were bound for Hell, where the devil would commandeer them. But these fires were not normal.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry